This semester, the campus is saying “joyeux anniversaire” to La Maison Française.
2013 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Columbia’s cultural institution devoted to the study of French culture—the first of its kind on an American campus—and it’s being celebrated with “Century 1913-2013,” an ongoing exhibit of international, institutional, and military significance held in the lobby of Buell Hall. La Maison Française’s story began in 1913 on the eve of World War I, under University President Nicholas Murray Butler, who “felt it was important to offer an international perspective to students at Columbia,” Shanny Peer, the director of La Maison, said.
“Global education is an important emphasis of the University today, and what is interesting is that there was a similar kind of move around the time of when the Maison Française was created,” she said.
In particular, Butler had close ties to France, both academic and personal, as the president of the France-America Society, which was originally headquartered at La Maison Française. The exhibit features calling cards from some of Butler’s French correspondences—including viticulturist Maréchal Joffre and historian Gustave Lanson—as well as a number of medals given to Butler in recognition of his attendance at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. These pieces highlight the intimacy of Butler’s relationship with France.
Research for the exhibition, which opened Sept. 5, began more than a year ago.
“It’s really a process of looking at a lot of material and distilling it and figuring out where the stories are and how to shape it,” Peer said. “We wanted to tell the story of the Maison Française, but we also wanted to inscribe that story within a few larger narratives.”
The exhibit also touches upon the important role that La Maison Française played in the two world wars. On display are photographs from October 1918 showing the Columbia Student Army Training Corps doing drills behind Low Library, as well as images of a professor in his military uniform writing the lyrics to the French national anthem—a stark reminder that not even Columbia students were safe from the tides of war.
Alongside these photos sits a 1942 letter from the Committee for French Scholars asking for donations to help French professors and students who were sent into exile after the Nazi invasion. One line from the letter stands out: “Are you interested and will you help?” The answer to both was “Yes.”
“Nicholas Murray Butler was very instrumental in getting the United States involved in the war,” Peer said.
Butler and other members of the France-America Society, including treasurer J.P. Morgan, “lobbied behind the scenes to build up American public support to go into the war,” she said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, La Maison Française will also be offering a series of special events throughout the coming months, including documentary screenings, theater performances, roundtable discussions, and lectures. The first lecture in the fall series, titled “Thought Police: The FBI and French Philosophers,” will feature a talk by Andy Martin, of the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday.
The lecture series is carrying forward the tradition of prominent French intellectuals speaking at the University. In 1945-6, French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus spoke at Columbia on their first trip to the United States. Throughout their visit, the two men were followed by the FBI, and the content of the FBI file forms the basis for this lecture.
“They were suspected of being political subversives and their ties with the left and flirtation with the Communist Party ... made them suspects in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover,” Peer said.
While the physical exhibit is rooted in the history of La Maison Française, the institution is still very much a presence on campus today, and its original purpose of promoting international relations can be glimpsed in everything from Columbia College’s Global Core requirement to the political science major.
In the final section of the exhibit, titled “The Columbia Maison Française Today,” two pictures sit side by side. One is dated 1961, and shows a crowd of people making their way into a lecture given at La Maison Française’s original 117th Street building. The adjacent photo depicts a scene of students huddling around a table to sign up for a lecture given by philosopher Jacques Ranciere last September. The two images nicely echo each other, a testament to the building’s history.
“Century 1913-2013” runs through Oct. 30.